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India snuffs out girl child

India's overwhelming preference for the male child may see too few women left in the near future.
By Reuters | PTI, New Delhi
PUBLISHED ON AUG 04, 2005 11:12 AM IST

It's a scenario that's hit India straight in the gut.

Some time in the future in a village in eastern India, there are only a few women left. As a result, five brothers are married to one woman - who then take turns brutalising her every night.

This may be the figment of a Bollywood film-maker's imagination, but activists say the film, Matrubhoomi is a wakeup call in a country plagued by two of the most horrific crimes against women: infanticide and female foeticide.

"Infanticide may still be there in small pockets, but foeticide is more rampant," said Akhila Shivdas of the Centre for Advocacy and Research.

"They believe why wait for nine months to eliminate a baby girl when they can do it in just eight weeks."

Experts say the number of women dropped to 933 for every 1,000 men in 2001 from 941 in 1961, largely because of a long history of infanticide and, more recently, sex selective abortions. The ratio stood at 972 in 1901.

Sex determination tests are illegal but common, and many families abort female foetuses to avoid huge dowries later.

And it's not just poor rural families that prefer sons: a study by the Christian Medical Association released recently suggested that foeticide was rampant even in the Indian capital, especially in families where there were already daughters.

The 10-year study of babies born in Delhi hospitals beginning from 1993-94 researchers found the sex ratio unnaturally skewed in families that had had a girl child, suggesting female foetuses were being aborted at a high rate.

The study found that the number of female births was 542 per 1,000 boys if the first child was a girl. If the first two children were girls, there were just 219 girls born for every 1,000 boys.

"Our study showed 50 percent of female foetuses are eliminated if it's a second girl and after two girls almost three-fourths of the female foetuses are eliminated," the association's Joe Varghese told Reuters.

Despite the ban, the sex-determination industry thrives: many clinics offer ultrasound sex tests for as little as 500 rupees ($11.50). And there are signs in parts of the country saying: "Pay 500 rupees now and save 50,000 rupees later", a reference to the dowry that parents must pay to get their daughters married.

Doctors use code to tell people the sex of their unborn child: if it's a boy they say the child will be a "fighter" and if it's a girl, the baby is a real "doll".

"With people choosing to have just one or two children, the pressure to have a male child increased," said Varghese.

"This has distorted the sex ratio which in the long run will be disastrous for the sex composition of society."

Many families prefer sons because they're seen as old-age security in a nation with no pension, while daughters, on the other hand, leave home when they wed and they take a huge dowry in the form of money, property or other goods such as refrigerators and scooters.

The government, with the help of non-governmental organisations, has been cracking down on clinics that secretly abort female foetuses.

"We have sealed several machines if they are not registered and because they were not following the law," Sushma Rath, a senior bureaucrat in the Health Ministry said.

"Apart from that, we are also involving religious leaders and asking them to include such issues in their teachings."

The government has been running a campaign highlighting the importance of the "girl child" in a society where baby girls are still often abandoned, sometimes in drains or garbage dumps or just left in cradles outside orphanages.

"How can we afford to bring up so many girls?" pleaded a domestic servant in Delhi who delivered her fifth daughter recently.

She said she was desperate to abort the baby when she learned it was a girl, but could not because she was too weak.

"I still want to have a son, but don't know if I can afford to take a risk," she said.

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